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Talking Point: Does Steam Need Quality Control?

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Talking Point is a weekly series that posits a question concerning the gaming industry. We encourage readers, as well as our writers, to offer their thoughts on the topic. Hence the name: Talking Point. Feel free to join in below.

A big question within the Steam Community is whether or not there needs stronger quality control over the games being sold. To be honest, there is a lot of crap on Steam, but is it right to deny developers access to Steam just because their game sucks? The call for change comes from many voices. This includes indie developers and gamers themselves who are genuinely concerned about the quality of games in general and don’t want others to be cheated by a half developed lemon of a game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this topic isn’t simply a question of whether terrible games should be allowed on Steam, but rather a complex issue about how markets themselves work.

The main argument against quality control is that it ends up hurting everyone from developers to Steam itself. It’s up to the gamers to pick and choose what to purchase, and if a game sucks from a technical perspective, they can try to return it and tell the community. This argument compares Steam to a literal storefront where one can shop around and compare products to buy. It is essentially putting responsibility on the gamer to know what they want and to use critical thinking to sift through the amalgamation of games to finally decide what they want and if they should purchase it.


This logic is ultimately a fallacy. According to
Tomasz Mazurek of gamasutra.com, the Steam storefront ends up falling into an information asymmetric market called “The Market for Lemons”. The term was originally coined by economist George Akerloff in 1970 to describe a market failure mechanism in the used car market. The theory goes that the most rational thing a consumer can do is to make an assumption about a car’s quality based on the average quality of the other cars on the market. If some cars in the market are lemons, consumers then assume that all the cars in the used car market must also be lemons. This further depresses the average quality of used cars as a whole. Mazurek, a game developer himself, brings up the “lemon market” car theory and applies it to the Steam Market. He states that “if the supply of games surpasses the reviewer’s ability to review them and the quality of the games falls at the same time, the result can be a downward spiral of falling average games’ quality and prices.”

This seems to be true within the Steam market when looking at the numbers. According to Steam Spy 4,207 games were released on Steam in 2016 alone. That’s 40% of all the titles in the entirety of the Steam catalog. Taking this one step further, 80% of the entire catalog came out in the last three years alone. That’s a flood of games that reviewers have a hard time keeping track of, making it impossible to adequately determine a game’s quality in a timely manner. The few that do fall into reviewer’s hands could very well be, to put it bluntly, lemons. This then leads to the assumption that the rest of what’s being released is lemons. Even with complaints and negative reviews warning others to stay away, the sheer number of unplayable, broken games, continues to rise.

Graph of “Games on Steam Released by Year” (shared from @Steam_Spy on Twitter).

Having an open and saturated market for Steam isn’t only bad for players, but it really ends up hurting independent developers. The game makers who do work hard to create longstanding and well-made products end up getting buried by the myriad of trash coming through the floodgates of Steam. A lot of indie devs are just small teams with no big publishers, or publish it themselves, and don’t really have access to great marketing or PR. Steam was originally supposed to highlight these games and make them more visible to players looking for something off the beaten path. But since 2013, Steam has decided to let more content into their marketplace, which has decreased the visibility of smaller, more deserving developers.

It’s hard to take on the behemoth that is Valve, but what is there to be done? There are many ideas floating around the internet on how Valve could fix this problem. Some of these ideas involve using Steam Greenlight to cut down on abuse of the program. Others believe that Steam should introduce a rule that only games with reviews or playable demos be allowed. Some ideas even propose that entrepreneurs create their own small market to compete with Steam. By comparison, this is a relatively new problem in gaming and it’s hurting everyone from gamers to developers. The answer to “Does Steam need quality control?” comes down to a resounding yes, but the question is “how?”.

Katrina Lind is a Writer, Editor, and PR Manager for Goomba Stomp. She has an affinity for everything Indie Gaming and loves the idea of comparing the world of gaming to the world of art, theater, and literature. Katrina resides in the Pacific Northwest where she swears she grew up in a town closely resembling Gravity Falls and Twin Peaks.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. John Cal McCormick

    April 14, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    The steam store is a garbage fire. It’s tricky to know what to do with it though. Quality control would require manpower and time to implement and would invariably hurt sales to some degree, but it’s hard to argue that it would too help smaller games that are worth recognition garner more attention if they ocean of asset flipped games and other such rubbish was removed.

    Personally, I would love them to, and for that to then filter down to PSN and Xbox Live which are slowly going the same way. I don’t have shares in Valve though.

  2. Mike Worby

    April 14, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    There’s definitely way too much shovelware on Steam. User reviews are an important tool but even they can be corruptible to a certain extent.

    • Katrina Lind

      April 14, 2017 at 8:06 pm

      It’s all terrible. Just- all of it. I found this topic by accident too. I’ve only been playing triple A’s lately, because even though I love indies, a lot of them suck, so you do have to do a lot of digging around to find something good, or pray for a good HumbleBundle. But anywho- I googled “Why is Steam so shitty?” for fun, and it was a rabbit hole of info.

  3. Gabriel Cavalcanti

    April 14, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    The problem with Steam is not an overall quality control, but control over asset flippers such as the infamous Digital Homicide. The discussion seems to be losing focus everywhere as people argue what should be considered good and what shouldn’t, but this discussion starts with “developers” in the likes of Digital Homicide and the products they “put together” solely to sell trading cards. If an indie game has thought put into it but turns out to be universally bad, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on Steam as that’s a compltely different scenario than purchasing assets, putting them together, and calling yourself a developer.

    Also, Steam already stated their solution with Steam Direct. They also invited Jim Sterling and TotalBiscuit to their headquarters in Seattle to discuss the approach. Sterling made a short video summarizing the issue (focusing on asset flippers rather than overall quality control, bc the real problem lies with asset flippers), whilst TB uploaded a one-hour video. Links follow:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1OyenZvskc

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeEyCYv_QDI

    • Katrina Lind

      April 14, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      I totally agree. What I found interesting about just researching this topic in general, is that this is a relatively new problem, in comparison to other market problems. It’s possible that the market just isn’t developed enough to even know what steps to even take. Jimquisition even states that the problem is that every possible solution creates another problem. And it SEEMS like it should be about “this is a good game, this is a bad game” but it is really about those assets. Shitty people, making shitty games for the sole purpose of making a buck, and how to tell the difference between those asshats, and just some single dude making a game in his spare time that just happens to be crappy.

      This whole deal is just super fascinating and I actually want to keep researching and writing about it, because Steam also just discontinued Greenlight and started Steam Direct. I watched like, all of Jim Sterling’s videos on Steam too, and there’s just a wealth of information out there, adn he does a pretty good job at compiling a lot of that.
      Thanks for those links too btw! 🙂

      • Gabriel Cavalcanti

        April 15, 2017 at 10:02 pm

        Np 🙂 ‘Tis a shame Digital Homicide is mostly done with. That was the most entertaining circus.

        The video game industry as a whole and many other markets branching from it have a lot of problems. Part of them are aggravated by the community while others can be attributed to the industry’s young age and how society perceived it not long ago. Hopefully, one day we’ll get where it needs to be.

  4. Izsak “Khane” Barnette

    April 15, 2017 at 1:53 am

    Steam is kind of broken in regards to the quality of the experiences available on the platform, it’s almost as bad as the Play Store. I really like Steam and I realize the constraints in doing quality control, but I really think it’s needed.

  5. Ricky D

    April 15, 2017 at 4:41 am

    STEAM is out of control. They seriously do need quality control. And quality control will only help the games that should be getting more attention. AT the moment it is a hot mess and something I can’t stand browsing.

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